FX’s The Americans has grown steadily better over its first two seasons. The freshman run introduced us to the players and the situations; in its sophomore outing, the writers not only built upon that base, but added a season-long arc about another family of Russian spies. What happens to that clan directly affects how Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) see the world and their place in it. And now, with “Echo,” the season two finale, the structure is shaken up as our protagonists face their most difficult decision yet, possibly setting the stage to completely change the game.
Phillip and Elizabeth are loyal undercover KGB agents, but viewers are still likely to root for them because we get to know them on a very personal level. We see how they interact with their children, and that influences who they are on the job. The Americans presents a scenario where we understand these people and why they do what they do. It really gets into the heads of its leads.
They also have quite different personalities, despite the common cause. Phillip wavers previously in their mission, wondering if life as true Americans might not be better for their family. Elizabeth is much more the staunch nationalist. They are not tested too hard on these values, though, until “Echo.” Now, the KGB wants to recruit their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), something the couple may not be able to control, and they have very different opinions on if this should happen.
Elizabeth’s stance is the harder one to swallow, yet there is sense in it. Paige flounders all year with finding a purpose and wanting to effect change in the world. Elizabeth feels very much the same way, but has her mission to fulfill these needs. She sees a way to connect with her daughter and bring someone she loves and cares deeply about into her life’s work. Who wouldn’t want their kid to follow in their footsteps? Elizabeth has had to keep part of herself hidden and this has hurt her relationship with Paige. Recruiting her might solve that issue, or at least improve the bond. Plus, it will get Paige away from those crazy religious nuts.
Elizabeth also has the backing of her government, whose plan makes sense for them. They need the second-generation spies because the background checks will hold up better than on more recent immigrants. In the eyes of the Russians, no individual is more important than the whole. Elizabeth gets this concept, and applies it to herself. Why not extend that to her daughter?
Phillip, on the other hand, is much more concerned about the risks. Paige is still a child. What the spies do is dangerous, multiple members of their team being killed in the line of duty in “Echo” alone. He has a paternal instinct to protect his daughter at all costs. He even goes so far as to threaten Arkady (Lev Gorn), telling him to leave their daughter alone. Phillip, at this point, is probably considering running, or turning his family into the Americans for witness protection. He is going to do everything he can to keep his daughter out of all of this.
He’s not wrong about the dangers. This year’s story involving Jared (Owen Campbell) and his family, especially the resolution in “Echo,” learning how Jared is the killer, would be scary to anyone. Jared’s group is an illustration why it’s a bad idea to let Paige in, especially as an unstable, unpredictable teenager. Perhaps the KGB should wait until later, though younger minds are more malleable. I don’t know what Paige’s reaction would be to learning the truth now, but it certainly won’t be good.
To make things more complicated for Phillip, Martha (Alison Wright) wants to have a baby with “Clark,” his cover identity. Phillip is already lying to Martha every day; he doesn’t want to have to betray a child. It’s one thing for his own family, but to push that world onto a kid whose mother he is fooling and will one day abandon would be quite damaging. Plus, Phillip doesn’t want to tie himself to Martha any more than he has to as Clark, as he’s just using her for information. The question is, will Phillip’s bosses order him to acquiesce to her demands in order to keep her as a source? And if they do so, will Phillip comply? Elizabeth probably would, were their positions reversed.
Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) loyalties are also questioned in “Echo.” He is faced with a tough choice: saving the life of Nina (Annet Mahendru), the woman he loves, by handing over state secrets, which would threaten national security, or let her die and stay true to his country and his job. He chooses the latter, of course, Stan being a flawed hero, but a hero nonetheless. However, “Echo” shows us the pain this causes him, the waffling he goes through, and how he even mans up to witness Nina’s departure, rather than hiding in shame. He will regret what happens to Nina, who is likely done on this series forever, but he would never be able to sleep again if his actions led to the deaths of countless Americans. He does the right thing but just about anyone’s measure.
It’s this examination of morals and choices that makes The Americans compelling. Any series can present us with characters like these, and many do, but this show finds a way to carve out its niche, showing us something new. It’s slow-paced and dreary, but it’s also engaging and tense. The more I watch, the more I want to watch. Especially if they find a way to keep Claudia (Margo Martindale) involved, as they do this year despite the actress’ other commitments, as her pain in breaking the news to Phillip and Elizabeth about the organization’s intentions for Paige is the best scene in a terrific episode.
The Americans has been renewed and will return to FX next year.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00ECGHVHI]